Paris, 1894. The fame of Moravian-born painter Alphonse Mucha unexpectedly started with a poster for a play featuring actress Sarah Bernhardt. Its overnight triumph – fans of the new ‘Mucha style’ (later dubbed Art Nouveau) stole the 2 meter high ad from billboards – resulted in a flurry of commercial art flaunting pastel-coloured, curvaceous, flower-haloed ‘Mucha women’ in flowing robes.
Prague, 1910-30s. After Mucha’s contributions to the 1900 Exposition Universelle helped to spread his successful style across Europe and the USA, he returned home in 1910. Here he developed a nationalistic iconography for more artistic projects such as the monumental Slav Epic – a history cycle in 20 paintings, finished in 1928. His 1931 design for a stained glass window in Prague’s Gothic St. Vitus cathedral belongs to the same atmosphere. In an explosion of light, colour and activity, Mucha surrounds St. Wenceslas, patron saint of the Czech people, with scenes from the lives of Slav Saints. The window’s centre from top to bottom compiles 1000 years of national history.
Above, Cyril and Methodius, 9th century Christian missionaries to the Slavs, baptize a disciple. The middle focuses on ‘Good King Wenceslas’, who as a child was raised by his Christian grandmother St. Ludmilla, against the will of his tyrannical pagan mother. Both are looking upward absorbed in prayer, doused in the golden and red tones of holiness and later martyrdom at the hands of treacherous kin. Below them, typical ‘Mucha women’ personify the young Czech and Slovakian peoples.
When 18, Wenceslas began to rule independently, stopped pagan persecution of Christian priests, and became the legendary founder of the (predecessor of) St. Vitus cathedral. At the same time, he united the Bohemian lands against oppression by neighbouring rulers. Political content is never far away: Wenceslas obviously personifies the fledgling Czechoslovakian state created in 1918 after centuries of ‘parental rule’ by the Habsburg Empire that disintegrated after World War I.
(text: Jos Hanou)